Earl Hess in the Trenches

There is much to like in Earl Hess's In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat -- and I like it very much. This is a book that fills a gap, rounds off a good series, and breaks new ground. It has interesting (and necessary) information on nearly every page. The photos and diagrams add information and pleasure.

Although Trenches may be an author's triumph it is – sadly - an editor's failure.

Hess has drawn his target and placed the shot square in the center. But the target is too narrowly drawn and the important data is off his periphery; his editors needed to counsel him. This is the main problem. The second issue is in editors not forcing the issue of the details not being detailed enough (as a former builder and user of entrenchments there is much more that I want to know). Finally, overlaying it all, seem to be some general publishing decisions that really rankle. Let me start with those.

The titles, main and sub, are misleading. "In the Trenches" implies an Osprey-like approach that puts the reader hard in the material world of dug mud. This is where you live; this is how you eat; here's how supplies are distributed; here's how you repel an attack; your latrine is over there; your parapet is this high. That's not what this book is about.

If the title is misleading, the subtitle is obnoxious: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat. Hess has an ill-conceived throwaway line in the preface that may have been sourced for the subtitle: "Field fortifications helped to bring about final Confederate defeat in the Civil War." When you make such a statement, you are committing to a line of argument. When you put it in the title, you're doubling down on a promise to show how entrenchments used by all defeated one side but not the other. That promise is never seriously taken up. This has the appearance of cynically greasing the skids to a broader audience by enlarging the scope of the work (virtually, not in fact).

The press release for this book, by contrast, gets it right: "This book covers all aspects of the [Petersburg] campaign…" A title should have been crafted to reflect that. Note the campaign content in earlier titles: Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864; Trench Warfare under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign.

What we are looking at here are campaign histories with an emphasis on field fortifications. If you come to this book expecting a monograph on entrenchments, forget it.

And this may explain our next glaring editorial failure. As this is the third title in a series, we would expect an essay that acts as a capstone, telling us where we've been, how and what changed, and what it all means. There is not even a single paragraph summary at the end of Trenches to tie the three works together. If the editors viewed these as stand-alone narrative histories with no analytic connection, only then could we arrive at such a decision.

Moreover, Hess in this work recasts the historiography of Petersburg offensives – an innovation. He rejects the current structure of classifying offensives and creates his own – which undoubtedly is offered here for future use to other historians. The effect is to tilt the emphasis even further away from analyzing field fortifications towards an overall weighting as campaign narrative.

By allowing Hess to draw the topical circle so narrowly, major issues loom to trouble the reader. What did the builders of the trenches intend? How did they fit into the operational plan – if there was an operational plan (or do trenches signify the abandonment of operational planning?). What did Grant and Meade think they were doing? Never mind the lip service of past historians, what were they or their subordinates trying to do?

Opportunities for comparison abound and since Hess wrote books about earlier uses of entrenchments, we would expect comparisons, but these are missing -- another odd editing anomaly.

In Battle Tactics of the Civil War, Paddy Griffith pointed out that the manpower-per-foot of entrenchments faced by the Union at Yorktown was much denser than that faced at Petersburg: he gave his calculations. Why wouldn't more comparative data like that be rendered here and then analyzed?

Another striking thing for the early war historian is the conduct of the siege at Yorktown compared with the entrenching done around Petersburg. The overriding Union purpose at Yorktown was to prepare for an extended, obliterating artillery strike, followed by an advance with an amphibious landing behind the shattered lines. Artillery – and the will to use it – are afterthoughts in Hess's book. Entrenchment seems to be an end in itself rather than any means to an end. The entrenchers are not campaigning at all but seem to be acting out the very parody of siegework as misportrayed by Republican editorialists early in the war. This raises historiographic issues which again are left outside the scope of the work.

Viewed as a campaign narrative we lack here the various commanders' intentions; viewed as a monograph on trench warfare, we lack structure, analysis and depth; viewed historiographically, we have here a new way of counting the battles around Petersburg; viewed as the last part of a trilogy, we have lost our train of thought. I think Earl Hess had in mind a book that interested him and he wrote it for himself, not a bad thing at all. I encourage you to read it.

His editors, however, missed their chance to make the "interesting" important.